Posted: 13 Oct 2010 03:32 AM PDT
By Stephanie Sta Maria
SHAH ALAM: Civil servants in Selangor today overcame their initial apprehension over the state government's Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill and threw their support behind its enactment.
At a feedback session held by the Special Committee on Competence, Accountability and Transparency (Selcat) this morning, representatives from various government bodies in the state highlighted certain "vague" clauses in the Bill which they warned would hinder its enforcement.
These concerns included the appointment of an information officer, the definition of specific words, the basis on which a person is deemed "not entitled" to information, how information is disseminated and the response time frame.
On hand to address their concerns were FOI select committee members and assemblymen comprising Saari Sungib (Hulu Kelang), Hannah Yeoh (Subang), Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad (Seri Setia), Dr Ahmad Yunus Hairi (Sijangkang) and Amirudin Shari (Batu Caves).
Many questioned whether information officer meant a new appointee or an extension of powers for the current hire. They stated their preference for the latter, explaining that it would be more cost-effective.
A considerable number of terms, meanwhile, also caused confusion among the civil servants due to the lack of details and definition of each.
"It states that the department is not required to comply with an application for information which is vexatious and unreasonable," said a Yayasan Selangor representative.
"What is considered vexatious and unreasonable? Some may equate it to photocopying 20 pages. You must clearly define this," she added.
"Another clause states that applications to access information may be refused by the department when the applicant is not entitled to this information. Who determines this entitlement and what is its basis?"
Here, another representative interjected and said that the above mentioned clause contradicted with an earlier one that states that "any person may be given access to information made by every department".
"The Bill is called Freedom of Information but there are so many restrictions," she added. "Perhaps it would be more accurate to rename it Access to Information instead."
Amirudin shot down this suggestion and said that the restrictions were necessary to avoid the overstepping of state power.
"The FOI Bill is named as such not because we want to draw a line between black and white but because we want transparency to be part of the culture in Selangor," he added.
The civil servants also protested the 30-day time line between the approval of an application and the delivery of information.
They explained that certain requests would involve the coordination of several departments which could possibly take longer, especially if the information required was several years old.
On that same note, they asked that a time frame be imposed on the information requested as some are not available after a 10-year period.
A boost to people's confidence
Saari, the committee chair, concluded the session by saying that the Selangor government's intention is to uphold the people's basic right to information.
"The FOI Bill is in line with the government's practice of democracy," he said. "We will take the dominant points of this discussion to the next state assembly sitting and your input will be included in the amendments."
Nik Nazmi added to this by underlining the government's efforts to boost the people's confidence in it via the Bill.
"There are many times when this 'classified information' finds its way onto blogs," he noted. "So it is important for our laws to catch up and keep up with technology."
Hannah later stressed the importance of the civil service support of the Bill as they are the "arms and legs" of making the enactment "functional".
"This is the first time that the voice of the civil service has been included in a legislation," she observed. "It's a good learning step for them to see and understand how this state government functions – that it wants their contributions in improving a future legislation."
"Today's session was very important and completed our entire exercise. Many times we conduct research and put forth proposals without being aware of the practical issues faced by the civil service. This is why so many legislations in Malaysia lack enforcement."
The Selangor government made history when it tabled the Bill during the last state assembly sitting in July. It consulted various civil society groups in drafting this legislation but faced criticism from certain quarters for excluding international best practices in the drafts.
A third reading of the Bill will be done during the next sitting in March 2011 after which the government is hoping to have it passed.
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